When May Chang was furloughed from her job as a housekeeper at Ala Moana Hotel at the end of August due to a drop in occupancy, she felt a familiar anxiety.
Chang was among the thousands of hospitality workers who lost their jobs in March 2020 as fears of the coronavirus prompted Hawaii leaders to shut down the tourism industry. She spent 14 months out of work, and was relieved to be called back in May.
But now she’s unemployed again and isn’t sure when she’ll be called back. Last year, at least, she was eligible for unemployment and started getting her checks two months after applying.
Now, she doesn’t think she’ll qualify because she didn’t work two full quarters of the preceding year as required.
Hawaii’s pandemic has reached an uneasy plateau. The state’s coronavirus test positivity rate has slipped, but there are still more Covid-19 patients in the hospital each day than any single day in 2020, and numerous restrictions are in place to prevent large social gatherings.
Gov. David Ige urged tourists on Aug. 23 to stop coming to Hawaii, which led to a drop in hotel occupancy rates.
The state’s unemployment office is preparing for 6,500 more claims to be filed in the coming weeks following the end of federally funded unemployment programs earlier this month.
In many ways, there’s less social support than a year ago for people like Chang who lose their jobs. The state no longer has an eviction moratorium preventing people who can’t pay their rent from getting kicked out. Mortgage foreclosure protection has ended. Last year’s stimulus checks and federal unemployment relief have vanished.
Meanwhile, many of the problems that were exposed by the onset of the pandemic last year have yet to be resolved. The state’s technological upgrade of its unemployment system isn’t expected to be finished for more than a year. For those who are eligible for unemployment, it’s common to still wait to receive checks.
Federal data shows Hawaii is among the worst in the nation in terms of processing regular unemployment payments in a timely fashion.
In the second quarter of this year, Hawaii was the fourth-worst state or territory in terms of unemployment payment promptness, only distributing payments within 21 days 31.6% of the time.
That’s half the national average of 62% and far less than the 87% threshold that’s deemed an acceptable measure of performance.
Hawaii also had the sixth-highest unemployment rate in the nation in July.
Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, director of the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations that oversees the unemployment office, says states that consistently report poor performance could eventually risk federal funding, but she doesn’t expect Hawaii to get to that point.
She said the poor payment processing rate reflects her office’s decision to prioritize older claims instead of those that are newly filed, adding they've paid out over $7 billion in claims.
“In good conscience I really feel that those who have been waiting all this time should get their claims first,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. “I know it makes our workers look bad.”
Hawaii also ranks worse because the state opted to waive the one-week waiting period for most of this year, a federal requirement that just went back into effect, she said. The timeliness analysis also doesn’t take into account other types of unemployment payments that the state processes.
Perreira-Eustaquio said she doesn’t have data on the state’s unemployment backlog because it can’t be pulled from the agency's mainframe. But anecdotally, she estimated that regular unemployment claims that aren’t subject to adjudication are taking more than a month to process and adjudicators are working on claims dating back nine months.
On Thursday, the state announced Hawaii’s unemployment rate fell to 7% in August. That’s half of what it was a year ago, but it’s still above the national average and means 45,550 Hawaii residents are looking for work.
The unemployment rate would be even higher if you count people who have stopped looking for work and those who are working part-time but want full-time work.
Advocates have expressed concern about challenges accessing the services of the unemployment office, which has been closed to in-person visits since the pandemic began.
The state launched an appointment system for complex unemployment claims last month, and its website shows phone appointments are available in every county.
Perreira-Eustaquio said people who make appointments on the English-language website can indicate if they’d like an interpreter at their appointment if they speak limited English.
But the only way to schedule an appointment is by going online to the state’s website.
People can also call to get immediate help, but most won't get through. During the first half of September, the unemployment office got an average of 8,054 incoming calls per day, but only 526 on average were completed, a 6.5% completion rate.
Yoko Liriano is co-executive director of the Hawaii Workers Center, a nonprofit formed in May 2020 to help Hawaii’s most vulnerable workers, including non-union labor and undocumented immigrants.
She’s frustrated that the state unemployment office still hasn’t opened its doors physically, allowing people who aren’t comfortable with computers or who lack access to the internet to at least make appointments in person.
Perreira-Eustaquio said as head of the Labor Department, her priority is the safety of her workers and she wants to protect them not only against the delta variant but against crowds of people vying for entrance to the office.
“I felt that it would be extremely difficult to ensure the safety of our staff as well as the customers who would be coming into the building,” she said. “We would have if not hundreds, thousands of claimants out in front of our door and that would not be a safe environment for anyone.”
Liriano thinks the concerns about safety can be overcome. Hawaii is not in shutdown mode like last year. Many government offices are open, and employees in customer service jobs are expected to show up for work in-person.
“People are grocery shopping, people are going to the bank,” Liriano said. “There are ways to do things.”
In the absence of in-person help, Liriano says she’s spoken to many workers who have simply given up on getting the money they’re due.
“By the time (unemployment is) calling back people, people have literally lost their phone service. It’s been so many months,” she said. “They’re living on the streets or in their cars.”
Perreira-Eustaquio said people who need computer help can use Hawaii libraries, and questioned how many people aren't able to access the online application.
“I don’t know of one person who doesn’t own a phone,” she said. “Nowadays everyone has a phone.”
Census data estimates 85% of Hawaii households have access to both computers and the internet. Nationally, an estimated 85% of Americans have a smartphone, but that falls to 76% for people earning below $30,000 a year.
Perreira-Eustaquio does want to eventually re-open in person, but she doesn’t think it’s necessary at this time because the unemployment office is operating effectively remotely. Part of what encourages her is that far fewer people are inquiring about unemployment through her office than earlier in the pandemic.
“I think we are being very efficient in the processes we have in place in order to service the community and keep the staff as well as the state healthy,” she said.
Bryant de Venecia, spokesman for Unite Here Local 5, a union representing about 9,000 hotel workers statewide, said that part of the problem is that even with Hawaii’s tourism economy roaring back over the summer, many union members didn’t get called back to work.
In early August, just over two-thirds of the union’s hospitality workers had been called back at least part-time. But hotel occupancy fell soon after, and now only about 30% of the 9,000 members have hours.
Perreira-Eustaquio said she expects “quite a bit” of people to fall into the same category as Chang and find themselves ineligible for unemployment insurance because they didn’t work enough hours.
Both Local 5 and the Labor Department are working on helping people find other jobs.
That’s a possibility for Chang, who for now is still hoping to be called back to her $25-per-hour housekeeping job.
In a lot of ways, she’s lucky. Her husband is still employed and is delaying retirement to ensure she still has health insurance. Her daughter had a baby during the pandemic, and Chang is able to spend her days watching her grandson, which brings her joy.
But despite her family’s support, she feels like there’s paranoia building inside of her, and fear. She feels like the only way for things to go back to normal is for everyone to get vaccinated. Nearly 66% of the state's population has been inoculated, according to the Department of Health.
“I’m still on my first two weeks of not getting back to work but as the days progress without a schedule, I’m actually really, really very nervous and afraid I’m not able to go back until the end of the year,” Chang said.
De Venecia says his biggest concern is the lack of a stronger safety net for the union's members.
“For a lot of workers who cannot pay rent and cannot get unemployment, it’s a really bad time,” he said.
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